By Kali Freels
In my theological schooling, I have learned much about mindfulness. We are taught to be mindful of others' emotions, aware of others' hurts, and considerate of others' journeys. This consideration of our brothers and sisters involves an openness to their story. It is a discipline that requires patience, practice, and compassion.
One of the biggest components of mindfulness is how we refer to God. Progressive seminaries overflow with conversations on gender-inclusive or gender-neutral language about God. We are reminded that God is not a man, and that God created humans, male and female, in God's image. God will not be restricted to any limitations we try to give God, including gender.
I am thankful for these conversations. In a world full of gifs and blogs about seminarians' frustrations when people only refer to God with masculine pronouns, however, I think there has been an overcorrection. While I believe we need to act upon our convictions that God is indeed not a man, I think we need to find a balance. We need to teach people that God is above gender labels, that it is okay to call God Father or Mother.
In his book The Shack, Paul Young illustrates God's diversity. On an intuitive notion, Mackenzie goes to the shack where his daughter was murdered to try to make peace with God. While there, he has a dream in which he meets the Trinity in forms much unexpected: Jesus the Middle-Eastern carpenter, Sarayu (the Holy Spirit) the whimsical Asian girl, and Papa (God) the large black woman. Surprised, Mackenzie asks Papa why she chose to be a black woman. God's response was Mackenzie did not have a good father figure as a boy and resented the title “father”. For Papa to relate to Mackenzie, she had to be something he was more comfortable with: a woman.
When I read this book, I was ecstatic. This book demonstrates the kind of mindfulness we are taught in seminary. God can be whatever that person needs to feel connected to God. So, whether God is a man or a black woman named Papa, it does not matter. Either, or any, portrayal of God helps individuals grow closer to God.
While I think it is important for Christians to recognize and be comfortable with the truth that God is outside the limits of gender, we need to take this conversation one step farther. We cannot stop at, “It's ok to call God He or She,” or, “Just call God 'God' to avoid any hullabaloo”. To serve better others and to recognize better the vastness of God in our own lives, we need to teach one more thing: redemption.
I identify with Mackenzie. As someone who did not have a good father and had no father during some of the most formative years of my life, I understand Mackenzie's disdain for the word “father”. For the longest time, that word rolled off my lips like poison every time I spoke it. How could I use that word to describe my holy, loving God? This, I know, is the story of many other wounded souls.
As I grew older, I continued to use the term “father” for God. Some may read this and think, “Poor girl! If only she knew it was okay to call God 'Mother' it would have saved her so much heartache!” I knew intuitively that God is not a man, but I didn't know what else to call God. As I continued to call God “Father,” God began a healing process that only He could instigate. Much more quickly than I would have on my own, I came to peace with the term “father”. God became the Father I did not have and the fact that I still have a Father restored a normalcy and balance my life lacked. It was only after that process of redemption I could start trusting men and forgiving my dad. God redeemed the “F” word for me.
Papa redeemed the “F” word for Mackenzie, too. During his vision, Mackenzie was able to forgive his father for the pain in his life. After that moment of reconciliation, Papa became a man to Mackenzie, an example of what a father should be.
So how should we encourage people to talk about God? Tell them God's not a man. Please, for heaven's sake, tell them God's not white. Tell them it is okay to call God He or She. Most importantly, tell them there is redemption in calling God Mother or Father. Remind them that our God is the God of healing. He will heal any wounds associated with whatever title you are afraid to call Him, even the “F” word.
Young, Paul Wm. The Shack. Newberry Park: Windblown Media, 2007.
Kali is a first year M.Div student in the Global Christianity track at McAfee, a tutor, and an anti-trafficking volunteer for a local ministry. In her spare time, Kali likes to read, play clarinet, and watch Friends reruns.